After our recent experience at Leong’s Legend, I thought that my brother and I should avoid Chinatown for our next meal out. We used to eat quite a lot of Korean barbecue when we lived in Beijing over a decade ago, and as we’re both meat fanatics, I thought Korean would be a perfect choice. tasty treats! provided me with some central London options, and I eventually settled on Arang (although I have to point out she has only had the takeaway lunch there!). Incidentally, Arang is also owned by the same people behind Ran on Great Marlborough Street, which I used to visit before Koba opened.
Arriving at 7.30pm with a reservation, the restaurant was heaving and we had to wait a few minutes by the bar while our table was vacated and then prepared for us. The large majority of diners were Asian, which was a positive sign. The interior was slick and modern and I noticed that it didn’t smell much of barbecued meat. I always worry about what to wear when I go for Korean barbecue, because I inevitably end up smelling from head to toe of it.
The menu is rather substantial. You can see it in its entirety on the restaurant website. I’m no expert on Korean food, but Arang seems to offer the standard dishes found in most Korean restaurants. But we were there for the barbecue, even though I could spot a couple of favourites – dwen jang chi ge – soy bean paste soup with beancurd & rice (£7.50) and dol bibimbab – steamed rice with beef & vegetables in a hot stone bowl (£7.50).
What we ordered:
I’ve become used to having to pay for namul (small dishes of seasoned vegetables) in this country, but it was always free in Beijing and Koreatown, New York. So I ordered the shi kum chi namul – seasoned spinach (£1.80) and suk joo namul – mildly seasoned green bean sprouts (£1.80). These and kimchi usually make up the trilogy of namul dishes that are served. They arrived with kimchi (normally £2.00) and a mash potato dish, both of which were on the house. Everything was fresh and crunchy (the potato wasn’t). A good start.
Next came the haemul pajun -spring onion & seafood pancake (£8.50). I actually preferred this to the one at Koba. This was thinner and crispier, while the Koba version is a bit thicker and more doughy in texture. It depends what you like, I think. It comes with a small dish of dipping sauce.
Then the barbecue was prepared. I chose bul kalbi – seasoned & marinaded beef short ribs (£8.50) and bulgogi – sliced & marinated beef (£7.50). There were plenty of other options including seafood like sliced beef tongue, pork belly, prawns, scallop and squid, but I wanted to concentrate on pure beef this time. The barbecue banchan (side dishes) included a basket of lettuce leaves, a dish of slightly spicy, finely sliced spring onions and a small dish of kochu jang (Korean hot sauce).
In case you haven’t had Korean barbecue before, the waitress usually cooks the meat on the built-in grill in front of you, but I prefer doing it myself and took over from her after about 5 minutes. Otherwise it feels a bit awkward and you’re rushed to eat at her pace. Place a lettuce leave on the plate, add some spring onions and a small dollop of kochu jang, add a couple of pieces of meat, wrap the lettuce around it and eat! The meat was of good quality (apart from a couple of chewier bul kalbi pieces) and both portions were substantial. We also had small bowls of rice which neither of us could finish.
The service was friendly, despite it being very busy throughout the entire time we were there (with up to ten people waiting by the entrance to be seated at one point). And the food was perfectly fine. Not outstanding, but on a par with any of the good Korean restaurants in New York.
I was surprised though, when I saw the bill, and am still pondering over this days later. Not only was there a £3.60 charge for the lettuce, spring onions and kochu jang, because I asked for more after we ran out, they charged us twice! So for two small baskets of lettuce leaves, 2 bowls of spring onions and 2 tiny dishes of sauce, all of which are essential to the Korean barbecue, I had to pay £7.20, practically the price of a barbecue dish. I should have queried it then, but as it sometimes happens, I didn’t.
On my way home, I tried to remember all the times I’ve eaten Korean barbecue (plenty of times in Beijing and New York, not so regularly in London), and couldn’t recall ever having been charged extra for these ingredients that form an integral part of the barbecue. If you know this to be normal practice in UK Korean restaurants, please let me know. Otherwise I’m going to have to visit every other Korean restaurant in London to find out what the common practice is!
Dinner therefore came to a total of £46.50 including service charge, minus alcohol.
10 – Perfection, 9.5 – Sensational, 9 – Outstanding, 8.5 – Superb, 8 – Excellent, 7.5 – Very Good, 7 – Good, 6.5 – Above Average, 6 – Average